No democracy for city-dwellers?

Milind Bokil

The most common feeling among city-dwellers today is that of helplessness. Whether you live in a big metropolitan city, in a district town or in a small municipal town, the basic sense is that you don’t have any control over the things happening in your surroundings. Gutters leak, roads are excavated, footpaths don’t exist, manholes are open, parking is undisciplined, billboards and flexes abound, amplifiers deafen the ears, dustbins overflow, rubbish is scattered on the streets and so on and so forth. Conscientious citizens are deeply perturbed and anguished over the state of their cities. But what is the solution? Make a complaint to the ward office? Write a mail to the municipal commissioner? Or sit at the door of the councillor? Whatever you do the ultimate experience is that of frustration and alienation from civic affairs.

This situation occurs because we do not have control over the governance of our cities. As citizens we are allowed to elect our government but we are not allowed to govern it. We follow a representative system of democracy in which political powers are vested with the representatives. We elect the representatives, every five years, and are asked to sit back, toil and suffer. The representatives mostly belong to political parties and follow the whims, wishes and fancies of their political bosses. Of course, they have their own agenda of garnering money for the next elections. Although people elect them they are not the ‘people’s representatives’.

Is the representative system of democracy the only type of governance? No. Not since the 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution. The Indian Constitution, when it was adopted in 1950, heralded the parliamentary, representative system of democracy both at the central and state levels. Although a figure like Mahatma Gandhi was striving throughout his life for ‘Swaraj‘, i.e., self-rule of citizens, his ideas had found scant reference in the 1950 version of the Constitution. This error was partially rectified in 1992 (after 45 years of independence!) when the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendment acts were passed by our Parliament. Prior to that, the idea of local self-governance (popularly called as panchayati raj) was instituted in some states like Maharashtra and Gujarat but it had not received the constitutional mandate.

As we know, the 73rd Amendment Act is for rural areas and the 74th Act is for urban areas. Ideally, both the Acts should have had the same scope and content. However, this has not been so. The 73rd Amendment has been far more progressive and empowering than the 74th Amendment. This has happened because it was Mahatma Gandhi who was the champion of ‘Gram-Swaraj’. There was no such champion for ‘Nagar-Swaraj’. Hence, the kinds of provisions that are made in the 73rd Act are not there in the 74th Act. This will be evident from even a cursory glance at the statement of objects and reasons cited in each of the Acts. While the 73rd Act (drawing strength from the directive principles enshrined in Article 40 of the Constitution) clearly talks about imparting certainty, continuity and strength to panchayati raj institutions, the 74th Act is content only in removing the inadequacies of urban local bodies. This is further evident from the fact that under the 73rd Act, the gram sabha – the assembly of all the voters in the village – has been given far-reaching powers; similar kind of institution has not been thought or proposed in the 74th Act. The 74th Act weakly proposes a ‘ward committee’ but it is again a committee under the chairmanship of the ward councillor. It is for the whole ward. It is not on par with the gram sabha and does not allow direct participation of the citizens (interested readers may glance at the texts of the Acts easily available on the Internet).

In rural areas, the 73rd Amendment Act has brought in considerable dynamism. Apart from the fact that women’s and weaker sections’ participation in governance has increased (due to mandatory reservations), the basic notion that the assembly of the people is superior to the representatives (sarpanch and the panchayat) has been extremely significant. As mentioned earlier, for a long time we were grappling with the question as to who would rule over the representatives. For rural India the answer has been given – it is the ‘people’ who will rule the rulers. An institutional arrangement of gram sabha has been sanctified for people to do so. There have been some examples like the tribal village of Mendha-Lekha in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, which has shown how direct, participatory democracy, based on the principle of consensus decision-making (rather than the rule of the majority) can do wonders to the social and economic life of the community. The slogan given by Mendha-Lekha is very interesting:
‘Our Government in Delhi and Mumbai
We the Government in our village’.*

This slogan (although given before the 1992 Act) correctly captures the aspiration of the Indian Constitution. We need both: a representative government to run the affairs at the higher levels and local self-governance to run the affairs at the community level.

Instead of making due constitutional amendments and bringing the urban legislation on par with the rural one, what has been subsequently put forth is the ‘Model Nagar Raj Bill’. The Bill had been proposed by the central government in 2008 and the states have been asked either to enact a separate law or make amendments to the existing municipal laws.

One merit of the Nagar Raj Bill, over the 74th Amendment Act, is that it proposes ‘area sabha’ as the basic unit of decision-making. This is akin to the gram sabha in rural areas. It has been proposed that an assembly of all the voters at the level of a polling booth be formed and it should take the necessary decisions applicable for that locality. This is a very good suggestion because a polling booth generally consists of one thousand voters. It could ideally form a community. What is important in governance is that the unit of decision-making should be as small as possible so that it becomes truly participatory. In the Nagar Raj Bill this is an improvement over the concept of ‘ward committee’ as stipulated under the 74th Act. The committee again becomes a ‘committee of representatives’ and loses the participatory potential. A sabha or assembly is truly a people’s forum which is the basic and superior-most unit of governance.

Although the Nagar Raj Bill has been flaunted as India’s ‘community participation law’, it has actually come about as a mandatory reform to receive funds under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The pressure has actually come from the World Bank, an important donor of JNNURM. The Bank wanted to improve the accountability of urban governance so that the funds were properly utilized. So long as the JNNURM carrot was being dangled, state governments made a farce of propagating the Bill but in reality none of the states has passed the Bill. As usual, there is no political will.

So what is there for the citizens to do? On the one hand, those of us who have flair and inclination for policy-advocacy should try to bring about this necessary legislative change. Political parties need to be pressurized into committing this as part of their political manifesto. The state governments should be persuaded to table the bill in their respective assemblies and carry out public discussion in order to enact the legislation as early as possible.

But the process that is most important and the one for which no external sanction is required is of organizing the community on this principle. Nobody prevents us from forming our own area sabhas. We could identify ourselves in small communities (a mohalla, colony, housing society or even a street) and form the general assembly where all the adult dwellers could be the members. We could also create ‘resident welfare associations’ or ‘citizens groups’. The usual fear in the minds of middle-class urban residents is that if people gather together they will quarrel and no decision will be taken. Hence, we have to create representatives and let them manage. This fear is not unfounded as it is born out of previous experience. However, if we really want to break the impasse caused by representative democracy we will have to get over this apprehension and make a beginning. We have not done sufficient experimentation in this regard. Experience in rural areas shows that initially people quarrel, disagree and consensus is difficult to achieve but as the process moves forward people do shed their differences, learn to live with differing opinions, begin to trust each other and common good is achieved. Gregariousness is a basic human drive. If simple rural folk can do it, why not educated, enlightened urban citizens? For this to happen we need to harbor community feelings. As city dwellers we live individual, atomistic, isolated lives. Our helplessness stems from this condition. We need to believe that we also have a community existence and our community is our family. We can start with simple, secular activities like sports, cultural events, get-togethers and so on. Many housing societies do it. From these steps, we need to move forward to the political step, i.e., forming the area sabha. Ultimately, it is the politics that is important. But we need people’s politics and not party politics. That makes the difference.

This is an agenda not just for thinking but actually putting into practice. As Mahatma Gandhi had said during the Salt Satyagraha – ‘Kar Ke Dekho’. Do it, don’t just keep thinking and then see what happens!

The author is a sociologist and Marathi writer from Pune. He was involved in the ‘Sampoorna Kranti’ movement led by Jayprakash Narayan in the 70s. He is intricately connected with education – mostly non-formal. He has done work on the educational issues of migrant children, especially from policy and program point of view. He has been writing fiction and non-fiction in Marathi and has published more than a dozen books. His novel Shala was made into a movie (in Marathi) in 2012 and won the National Award.

*The story of Mendha can be read in Hindi. Bokil, Milind. 2015. Kahani Mendha Gav Ki. National Book Trust, New Delhi. The book can be ordered online from NBT.

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